welcoming the stranger
FOR THE PAST three years, Pope Francis has convened leaders of grassroots movements from around the world to extend the church’s solidarity with the poor and vulnerable on three critical themes: land, work, and housing.
This winter, a regional gathering of the World Meeting of Popular Movements met in the United States for the first time. Seven hundred grassroots leaders, accompanied by 25 U.S. Catholic bishops, several international representatives, and a delegation from the Vatican, led by Cardinal Peter Turkson, met in Modesto, Calif., with the cardinal bearing a letter of support, invitation, and challenge from Pope Francis.
To the regular themes, U.S. leaders added racism and migration. Participants addressed the pain of exclusion from the perspective of undocumented domestic workers, residents of Flint whose water was contaminated, Standing Rock water protectors, and the unhoused, while also raising the hope of united, faith-rooted, nonviolent resistance.
Racial justice, in the U.S. and abroad, was a central theme. “Why is blackness a threat in America?” asked Rev. Traci Blackmon. “And how are we, as people of color, ever to be perceived as unarmed, and therefore nonthreatening, if our blackness is the weapon that you fear?” Blackmon said that oppression, dehumanization, and racism are rooted in the original sin of desiring to be God and seeking to create God in our own image. John A. Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, added, “When you ‘other’ someone in an extreme way, then you treat them as a non-human.”
Importantly, in the Old Testament, Israel was told to rehearse its story of redemption in its feasts. That story was to spur them on to faithfulness, but also to motivate them to be open to outsiders. They were not to repeat the actions of their oppressors in their engagement with outsiders, but be accepting and helping (e.g., Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 24:17-22).
EVERY TIME I travel from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to Dohuk, Iraq, my drivers point to the same bridge. This, they say, is where ISIS was stopped by U.S. air power, just 15 miles from Erbil. It is a vital reminder that Kurdistan has twice been a safe haven: in the 1991 aftermath of the first Gulf War, to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein, and again last year when ISIS was at the city gates.
When I look on the Nineveh Plain just south of Kurdistan, it’s hard not to recall Cyrus the Great, who once conquered this entire part of the world. The book of Isaiah recounts God’s words to the mighty king, a nonbeliever, one who didn’t follow the God of Israel: “For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me” (emphasis added).
The chaos and violence in this region continues to drive people from their homes. Currently, Kurdistan is the temporary “home” of 1.1 million people fleeing ISIS. Most are people of faith—Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis. The ripple effects spread out to refugee camps from Jordan to Germany.
Many U.S. Christians don’t think of God when it comes to geopolitics. We sometimes reduce Christ “the Lord of all” to Christ “our personal savior.” We might not be comfortable with the idea that if Christ is truly sovereign, then that includes our global politics.
As people of faith, we never give up hope, even in the violent situation in the Middle East, which promises to get worse before it gets better. Here are three steps you can take to address the ISIS crisis and its violent ripple effects:
Christian groups are strongly condemning the anti-refugee rhetoric coming from top GOP leadership this week, reports POLITICO.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, many in the U.S. media speculated that one or more of the attackers had entered France as refugees from Syria, prompting state senators, governors, and even U.S. presidential candidates for the GOP to vow to close U.S. borders to Syrian refugees altogether.
These statements are being decried by Christians nationwide, including those with more historically conservative positions on immigration and foreign policy.
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Western claims to stand for human dignity and human rights usually look pretty hollow whenever a major refugee crisis hits. That is what is happening now, as millions of refugees seek asylum in Europe — and mainly run into closed doors and cold shoulders.
The current crisis is a grave one. According to Amanda Taub, 19 million people today are refugees. They come from all over, though today especially from Africa and the Middle East. Four million have fled Syria since 2011. They are making global headlines as they surge into Europe, which is for many just the latest stop on a desperate odyssey.
They are dying in disturbing numbers — in rickety boats, sealed trucks and squalid refugee dumping grounds. They are not wanted where they come from and not wanted where they are going.
The pope’s teachings and his deeds have inspired people to put aside their differences and to work together for a common good. We hope that this momentum will carry over to the debates on immigration. We must work together push back against the hateful anti-immigrant messaging coming from some of our elected officials and candidates for office, and draw on the moral high ground we find in our faith and Scriptures. Including Matthew 25.
Beyond the need for broad-based legislative reform, ordinary people and communities of faith in the United States can also make a difference on an individual and family level. Just as the pope has called on European Catholic churches to “welcome the stranger” in their own parishes and homes, American churches, synagogues, mosques, and even individual homes should take up that challenge as well. It’s time for people in the United States and Europe to learn what it really means to welcome the stranger.
Zach Szmara, Pastor of The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Ind., was on a conference call when a young man entered the church. He put the call on hold to walk out of the office and meet him. In broken English, the man said, "Are you the people that help immigrants?" The man had driven more than 20 miles because he heard rumors of a church that loved the stranger.
Szmara said, "In that moment I was both humbled and convicted. I was humbled that our small church had such a reputation. Yet I was convicted that it was only very recently that I could answer 'yes' to the burning question of this young immigrant who came to me."
"I have lived overseas, and there my eyes could easily see the marginalized and the stranger in my midst. But at home in the states, I almost missed it, and almost missed how God has enriched my life because of it," Szmara continued.
The issue of immigration has dominated the headlines for much of this year. As Christians, we believe that – regardless of where we each may stand on the political spectrum – God’s heart for the immigrant is clear. In fact, the Hebrew word for an immigrant appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone, and the New Testament says in no uncertain terms that however we, as Christians, treat the stranger in our midst, is how we are treating Jesus himself.
Unknown to most, sanctuary is actually one of the most ancient traditions we have as a people of faith. In the late Roman Empire, fugitives found refuge in early Christian churches; in medieval England, churches protected accused wrongdoers; and in the years before the Civil War, people of faith organized the Underground Railroad to help slaves flee the South. In the 1980s, nearly 500 congregations practiced sanctuary in an attempt to shelter the hundreds of Central Americans fleeing brutal violence in Guatemala and El Salvador.
Currently, the Sanctuary Movement allows members of congregations who are facing deportation to reside within the sacred space of a church, synagogue, or mosque in order to avoid immediate deportation from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Although the ICE is not legally banned from entering churches or schools, custom is to avoid such sensitive areas unless a suspected terrorist or dangerous felon is involved.
Today there are currently 5 active sanctuary cases, along with 30 congregations who are offering sanctuary in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Washington, Maine, and Oregon. The Sanctuary Movement is important because it breaks down the polarized, politicized, and dehumanized aspects of immigration reform and looks instead to Christ as a model for loving one’s neighbor.
'The Stranger' offers just a few illustrations of the millions of lives that are negatively impacted by our immigration laws. The personal stories of immigrants who are facing the unintended consequences of our countries broken immigration policies are often left out of the national debate. The strength of the film lies in the fact that it puts a face to the issue of immigration and highlights the moral responsibility we have as people of faith to respond.
Many people like to point out that people should just do things the “right way.” While I agree with the premise of this statement, the likelihood of success for many people of color is slim to none. The reality is that people of African descent are not always given the same opportunities as those from other countries.
I first heard about Ruth Carmina Alvarez from my friend Kit Danley. Kit is the director of Neighborhood Ministries, a Christian community in downtown Phoenix that, over the past several years, has become increasingly focused on advocacy for undocumented immigrants in their neighborhood. It’s through Kit and her son Ian that I have become involved in discussions between evangelical pastors and many of our elected officials as we all seek a just, humane repair of our tragically broken immigration laws.
Carmina, a longtime Phoenix resident who is married to a citizen and has a citizen child, used a friend’s ID to get a job at a local KFC. She was picked up on immigration-related charges last August for working with “bad documents” but was released and had no subsequent contact with authorities. But on April 1 police came to her house and arrested her. She had just finished eight months of chemotherapy for Stage 3 breast cancer and was still very sick, waiting for surgery to remove the tumor. Carmina was charged with a class 4 felony, which could mean deportation. But more importantly, if she pleaded guilty, she would have been ineligible for any status adjustment should a comprehensive immigration reform bill pass.
CNN reports on Usoni , a futuristic television drama produced in Kenya that is about reversed immigration. The show depicts Europe in 2063, where life has turned unlivable after a deadly series of natural and economic disasters.
Europeans are desperately seeking a way to get to a livable continent south of them: Africa. The hardships in making the trip are unfathomable, and once the immigrants arrive, they are unwelcome, harassed, and rejected. The story follows a young couple, Ophelia and Ulysse, who are seeking to make their way with their unborn child to the land of promise.
Yes, the comparisons today to those seeking to immigrate to Europe (with obvious parallels to America) are intentional. Marc Rigaudis, the Kenya-based French filmmaker who created the program, is making a point to help us walk in the shoes of those whom we know the Bible calls “aliens and strangers.”
The chilling trailer depicting people like me being treated as illegal immigrants is enough to make one’s hair stand on end.
“Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.”
- Dorothy Day
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Catholic Worker Movement — best known for its hospitality houses that dot the nation, bringing together communities of individuals in need and offering them housing and love.
It was in that vein that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife, Leah, began Rutba House in Durham, N.C., after experiencing what he calls the “Good Samaritan story:” While the couple were on a peacemaking trip in Rutba, Iraq in 2003, friends were injured in a car accident, and local physicians gracefully cared for them.
Jonathan and Leah returned to the states looking for a way to extend the same type of love and welcome they received in Iraq. Ten years later, Rutba House holds countless stories of transformation through community, which Jonathan recounts in his book Strangers at My Door: An Experiment in Radical Hospitality, out Nov. 5.
Upon first glance, the arc of the narrative does seem radical. The hospitality house welcomes strangers in to live as part of the community — even at midnight, even when they might not pass society’s presentability test, even when the host is tired, even when they come straight from prison.
“I think part of what I’ve learned over the past 10 years — what Jesus is revealing to us through this call to greet him in the stranger — is something basic about who we are and who we’re made to be,” Wilson-Hartgrove told Sojourners. “All of us are called to hospitality — not just as Christians, as human beings. Because humans can’t live alone.”
“I didn't come here because I wanted a job ... I came here because I wanted to live.” These words from an undocumented immigrant came early on in Church World Service's Summit on Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. They could have easily been the words of Mary, mother of Jesus, as they fled to Egypt during his childhood.
“We just wanted to live.”
The reality is, as Christians, our tradition, our faith, our roots, are all tied up in an immigrant identity – or at least they should be. Reaching as far back as Adam and Eve, and Abraham and Sarah, we are a people who are on the move. We are typically found in places other than where we began. Even parts of the texts we use to guide us on our journey to/toward/with God were put together as the Israelites were living in a foreign land.
As Christians, we must recognize that we are truly a people with immigrant roots which reach all the way back to our Jewish spiritual ancestors. In that recognition, we need to learn to fully embrace the call of Deuteronomy to show hospitality to sojourners. It's a call that is about so much more than being welcoming and offering drink and food (although it does include those). The “hospitality” we are called to is one of seeing someone whom we may identify as “other” and loving them.
I'd make the argument that in his teachings, Jesus takes that concept a step further and tells us we shouldn't see them as other, we should see them as yet another image of God – another opportunity, another invitation, to not only share God's love but to know it more fully.
What kind of tentmakers are we? Are we more like Martha, so preoccupied with busywork that we neglect our neighbors, the guests of honor? Do we stand by and rejoice in the misfortune of others suffer the consequences of their own doing, rather than inviting them in and making room for them at the table, under the protection of our shade? When we see a stranger come by, do we drop everything, bring out the best of what we have and sit at their feet in humble service?
In recent weeks, a number of controversial and divisive political questions have dominated the news. Race and voting rights, abortion in Texas, and marriage equality at the Supreme Court have opened anew the scars of old political and cultural wars.
In this conflicted political ambit, the Samaritan's bold compassion is a needed reminder today. Let’s remember to be kind to the stranger, certainly. But just as important is that the story of the Good Samaritan also invites us to imagine ourselves in a different part of this narrative.
Imagine yourself not as the Samaritan seeking to love God and neighbor. Imagine yourself as the person in need. A man on the brink of death. A woman in deepest grief. A man lost in the world. A woman with no hope. Imagine yourself at your most vulnerable, deep in despair with only one hope: perhaps someone will help me.
We had taught, run, and dreamed together. Our ministries were growing, I was once again flourishing spiritually, but Richard seemed to be stalled. His peers were finishing college, finding jobs and mates, and Richard was hustling to find odd jobs and was being left behind. As we tended the land, I took a risk. I asked him why he had said he did not want a family. He confessed that he had reached that conclusion out of despair. He truly wanted to find a wife and previously hoped to have kids, but he did not have citizenship (his family moved to the U.S. when he was 7 years old) and was not able to find legal, reliable employment. He could not afford to go to college without access to financial aid. He insisted he simply would not start a family that he could not reliably provide for. He had lost hope. But he still had integrity. I was deeply saddened. I was saddened for Richard and his loss of hope. I was also saddened that our community and nation would potentially be deprived of his vision and courage.
The momentum for immigration reform is building across the country, but leaders in Washington are often the last to realize the seismic shifts taking place. The most recent example is when Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions made the claim that there is no “moral or legal responsibility to reward somebody who entered the country [without documentation].”
No moral responsibility? Many Christians believe otherwise.